MISSOULA — Tom Domako knows what a solid men’s basketball program at Montana State looks like.
He’s a former Big Sky Conference MVP and helped the Bobcats to back-to-back league championships in 1986 and 1987. And Domako likes what he’s seeing out of this season’s current crop of Cats led by second-year head coach Danny Sprinkle.
“I think Danny’s doing great,” Domako said in a recent phone interview with MTN Sports. “When he got the job, I reached out and texted him and stuff and he texted me back and he’s had me talk to the team. Being an alumni, I think he understands the passion that ex-players have for the basketball team and their success. … For two years in, he’s got a pretty solid team and he just keeps building it up, so I think he’s going to do great things.”
Sprinkle’s Bobcats are doing things this season that haven’t been done in Bozeman since Domako’s heyday. Montana State is 6-0 to start Big Sky play this year, the best conference start the Cats have seen since Domako’s squad, coached by Stu Starner, started 9-0 in 1986-87.
Domako was a junior that season and led the Bobcats in both scoring (20.3 points per game) and rebounding (6.5 rebounds per game). He was a first-team all-conference selection and the Big Sky MVP as MSU compiled a 21-8 overall record, including a 12-2 mark in the Big Sky.
“We had really good players,” Domako reflected with a laugh. “I mean, three players on my team — me, Kral Ferch and Ray Willis are all in the Montana State Hall of Fame. I don’t think you’ll find very many teams that have that much talent on them at one time.”
“And at that time, we were playing a little bit of a different style of basketball, the style they play now actually,” he continued. “I was a 6-foot-9 3-point shooter, and I was playing the power forward position, and that’s actually more normal today, but it wasn’t very normal then.”
In fact, 3-pointers weren’t normal at all in the 1980s. Domako said the Big Sky experimented with a 3-point line during his freshman and sophomore seasons (1984-85 and 1985-86), but the NCAA didn’t nationally implement a 3-point line until 1987.
“The introduction of the 3-point line and stuff, which really suited my game, Stu totally changed his style of basketball to suit his personnel, because we didn’t have a bunch of 7-footers to pound it inside and stuff like that. I give him a lot of credit for changing the game and making his personnel work for MSU,” said Domako, who made 52 3s during the 1986-87 season and 64 during the 1987-88 season, according to MSU’s record books.
A Michigan native, Domako grew up watching another 6-9 guard from his home state. NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, who is from Lansing, Michigan, about 70 miles west of Domako’s hometown of Livonia, starred at Michigan State from 1977-79.
Domako was a slender 6-9 — “I wasn’t going to go in there and bruise you around very much,” he said — so he emulated Johnson’s perimeter-oriented game. It obviously paid dividends at Montana State, where he was one of the best players ever to come through the program. But it also paid dividends beyond college, as Domako flirted with a career playing professional basketball.
He played in France and Belgium, the Continental Basketball Association and also had brief stints with the NBA’s Houston Rockets and New Jersey Nets, though he never saw the court in a regular-season game.
“Just playing with the big boys was a huge opportunity,” he said, referencing practices with Hakeem Olajuwon and preseason or exhibition games against Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. “Just the sheer star power of all the players you got to play against and stuff for that little short time was pretty outstanding.”
That gave Domako a “good headstart on life,” as he called it, and he returned to Montana, eventually graduating from MSU with a degree in computer science in 1996. That ultimately led to a job with Blackfoot Communications based in Missoula, where Domako and his family have resided the past 20 years.
“Everyone talks about the glory days,” Domako said. “I have great glory day memories, that’s all I can say.”